Why you should care
Because she’s becoming the face of the climate movement.
When Greta Thunberg started a solo climate protest outside Sweden’s parliament building last year, no one imagined it would spark a global movement that led to her being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But as she sailed for the U.S. last Wednesday, having quit flying for environmental reasons, the 16-year-old has become the figurehead for European climate activism as the continent experiences a groundswell in support for Green parties.
Thunberg’s prominence has grown during 2019 as she has crisscrossed the continent to lobby political leaders and rally her young supporters as part of the weekly #FridaysForFuture school strikes. Yet the number and vehemence of her detractors have grown with her.
Over the past 12 months, I suspect she has got a lot more airtime than the polar bear.
Mike Hulme, a professor at Cambridge University
The teenager — whose fame can be measured by the fact that she is almost always referred to by her first name only — has become a lightning rod for criticisms that are likely to intensify when she arrives in the more politically charged U.S. for next month’s U.N. climate summit in New York.
“You can think of Greta as the new icon of climate change,” said Mike Hulme, a professor at Cambridge University. “Over the past 12 months, I suspect she has got a lot more airtime than the polar bear.”
The most vociferous attacks on Thunberg have come from far-right politicians and conservative writers. During a visit last month to France, when she addressed legislators, one lawmaker dismissed Thunberg as a “prophetess in short trousers” who would win a “Nobel Prize for fear,” while another called her an “apocalyptic guru.”
Days later, an Australian columnist called her the “deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement,” prompting Thunberg to hit back. “I am indeed ‘deeply disturbed’ about the fact that these hate and conspiracy campaigns are allowed to go on and on,” the teenage activist wrote in a Twitter post. “Where are the adults?”
And yet Thunberg’s message has resonated across much of Europe, striking a chord with young people and a public that is increasingly concerned about climate breakdown and environmental issues. This summer, the U.K. and France adopted targets to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, and the Greens in Germany now have more political support than any other party.
Thunberg’s journey to New York on board the 60-foot carbon-fiber racing yacht Malizia II, with a small crew including skipper Boris Herrmann and Pierre Casiraghi, nephew of Prince Albert of Monaco, is expected to take two weeks.
“It will be quite an adventure,” she said on Wednesday as she began her journey in Plymouth on England’s south coast. “I expect it will be challenging, maybe seasickness,” she said, before adding: “There are people in the world suffering more than that.”
Thunberg is far from a household name in the U.S., where opinion polls show growing concern about climate change but a wide gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue. Richard Black, director at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and author of Denied: The Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism, said the U.S.’s more polarized political discourse could result in her being targeted for criticism.
“It will be interesting to see whether there is any paid-for anti-Greta advocacy,” he said, pointing to the funding for anti-climate action lobbying in the U.S. “There will be one tranche that absolutely does not welcome her.”
While almost all of her critics are on the right, occasional voices from other parts of the political spectrum have also questioned her influence. “When you consume Greta, you do not help the planet,” Raphaël Enthoven, a liberal French philosopher, wrote on Twitter a few days ago. “You play the game of the system that destroys it.”
Black said of such reproval: “She is also an intellectual threat, in that there is a kind of model of the political commentariat, that is used to being taken seriously, and she does not take them seriously.”
Others have asked whether Thunberg has gained excessive prominence. No one could argue about her significant influence: German Chancellor Angela Merkel credited the student protesters as she instructed her Cabinet to examine a carbon net-zero goal.
“It is quite interesting how rapidly she has gained this iconic power — almost mesmerizing power — given how partial and limited her political antenna and skills actually are,” said Hulme. “She is a legitimate representative, but should not be a hegemonic one.”
Within the youth movement that she inspired — school strikes have taken place in more than 100 countries — fellow activists insist Thunberg has always eschewed a leadership role, even if her speeches, viral tweets and social media posts ensure she remains in the public eye.
Last week, Thunberg was among 400 young campaigners who gathered in Switzerland for the first Europe-wide meeting of her school strike movement.
“Everyone here obviously knows [that] Greta was the founder of the movement. But she has always been very specific that she is not the leader,” said Mai Sheehan, a 16-year-old activist from Ireland. “All our decisions are made on a consensus basis.”
As if to back this up, Thunberg was nowhere to be seen at the press conference on the final day of the gathering. But the movement she inspired continues to grow, with major global demonstrations planned for Sept. 20 and 27.
“What often happens with Greta, is that the media frames her role as ‘Jesus’ and us as ‘the disciples,’” said Leonard Ganz, 21, from Germany. “This is really a problem.”
He continued: “She obviously is an inspiration for the movement … [but we] do not have that hierarchy.”
Timeline: Greta’s rise to prominence
Greta Thunberg, 15, begins her protest against government inaction on climate change in front of Sweden’s parliament building. She continues to protest each Friday, gaining worldwide attention and launching the #FridaysForFuture school strike movement.
Addresses leaders at the U.N.’s COP24 climate summit in Poland in a speech that becomes her first viral video. The following month she gives a talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos after a 32-hour train journey.
An estimated 1 million students take part in school strike protests across 125 countries, as Thunberg is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Time magazine names her one of the 100 most influential people of 2019.
OPEC Chief Mohammed Barkindo declares Thunberg and other activists the “greatest threat” to the fossil fuel industry.
Prepares to sail to the U.S. on board an environmentally friendly yacht to attend the U.N. climate summit in New York and a series of protests.
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